India's Vietnam
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  Part 1: The IPKF was totally unprepared and ill-equipped

Part 2: Don't worry about the LTTE, they are our boys


The most difficult part was managing the withdrawal

Read General Kalkat's interview by Josy Joseph from the beginning.

So that was the game plan of the LTTE and Premadasa?

General Kalkat This was part of the same game plan. The two of them decided that if IPKF remained there, then neither could cheat the other on the Accord. And each one thought that he was cleverer than the other. So both were playing a game to double-cross each other. Who could prevent them from doing it was the IPKF. Our stand was it was not over and if they do it, they will end up killing each other. That is the reason why the IPKF remained there. Because we were sure that it would not work. And it was apparent that both sides would not do what they were saying. Their priority was, Let us get the IPKF out.

For the LTTE their concern was that as long as the IPKF was there they could never get away with their demand for an independent Tamil Eelam. For the Sri Lankan government, or the Sinhala government of Premadasa, it was quite clear that we could insist that the Sri Lankan government honour its part of the agreement.

You had a lot left to be done.

There were so many things to be done. The land reforms. There were illegally occupied land, they had many areas where the demographic pattern had been changed. In the northern province certain area was made a separate territory for the so-called experiments in irrigation, but basically the Sinhala convicts were resettled there. It was a convict's colony. They were trying some arid agricultural experiments etc. Those land belonged to the Tamils, it was part of the Tamil homeland. There were many issues like that.

But Premadasa pushed you out.

Both felt that it was not in their interest to honour the Accord. Particularly after Jayewardane stepped down and Premadasa took over. He had always opposed the agreement. In that he was backed by a large chauvinistic group of Sinhalese. So both of them felt that let us get the IPKF out, then we will sort the other guy. So the IPKF came out on March 24, 1990.

When did you get orders to leave Lanka?

I was told that our government gave a commitment that by the 31st of March the IPKF would withdraw. So I was given the charter. By that time it was apparent that the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government had joined hands. When I say the Sri Lankan government -- I would like to clarify that not all governments have been like that -- I mean Premadasa's government and not of his predecessor or his successors.

You came across proof of the LTTE-Sri Lankan government collaboration?

The collaboration between the LTTE and the government had started around October 1989. It came to our notice, and we brought it to the notice of the Sri Lankan government and our government also. I myself took it up at the highest level, with the President.

But the Lankan government never accepted that?

Of course, it was denied. There was nothing that they could do. I am literally accusing them of collaborating with or sleeping with the enemy. The whole scenario changed soon after President Jayewardane decided that he will not stand for elections. The presidential election was held around, I think, December 1988, and as soon as President Jayewardane decided that and nominated Premadasa to be his successor, the bureaucracy and government started naturally behaving in the interest of Premadasa. So he started working on it earlier, and as soon as the announcement came the tilt was slowly and slowly taking place.

You interacted with the Sri Lankan army closely. How did they react to Premadasa's decision to tie up with the LTTE? Did the army also change its tunes to suit the new president?

Obviously, the last organisation to be affected by the tilt was the Sri Lankan army. They were professionals, they were dedicated. But over a period of time that also gets affected when the government gives you certain orders. Slowly and slowly they started replacing those officers who would not play ball with Premadasa. Because it was hurting them also, because the Sri Lankan army had been fighting the LTTE. They had lost a lot of people. And then suddenly to ask them to collaborate with them and assist them wouldn't go well. In fact, to the extent that Mr Premadasa faced a revolt within the army at that time.

You could feel that revolt?

I could feel that revolt simmering. And there was talk in Colombo that they might press a coup. The [ Sri Lankan] army chief that time was Hamilton Vanasinghe. But it was not one person, it was simmering across the board with generals because they were not happy. Because on the one hand they were asked to go easy on the LTTE, and on the other hand they had been asked to give them weapons.

A lot of officers would say We are giving them weapons today, and they will be used against us one day. So he was in a precarious situation. I think for him getting past it, he owes it to his late foreign minister who was assassinated, Ranjan Wijayarante. He was also the minister for defence, because he was liked by the army and he supported their action. What he did was since he could not go in any way against his president on the IPKF issue, he got clearance from the president for the Sri Lankan army to go against the JVP.

They were facing two problems. The JVP, the leftist Marxist movement in the South, and the LTTE in the North. Therefore, he got the clearance that the army would have a free hand against the JVP. And as you know, within three months they had virtually destroyed the JVP. They just destroyed it. Of course there were no human right activists there that time, otherwise it is a matter that would have come up. Those times, the visual media wasn't like it is today, so a lot of it did not come out. Today, there is a lot of transparency in military operations; at that time it was by and large close. With that the army, and every one got a respite.

You haven't answered my question: Was it the right time for the IPKF to withdraw?

It was preordained. There was no option. It had been announced by the new government in India in 1989. Once it was elected, the IPKF had to withdraw. We were told the time.

Once the withdrawal was announced, what were your concerns?

The main thing I was concerned about was that the Sri Lankan government was hostile to us to the extent possible. Not that they were fighting us, but they were abetting the fighting. I did not want my soldiers to be caught like what happened in Vietnam or in Afghanistan. I wanted to make sure that every soldier came home safely. I did not want to lose lives during the withdrawal.

Secondly, I wanted the withdrawal to be with dignity, not as in Vietnam where people were running away, hanging on to helicopters. Those thing would be terrible for the morale of an army. I was quite determined that as we went in with our flag flying high, we would come out with our heads high. So certain plans had to be put into action.

The most difficult part of my entire command was managing the withdrawal of the IPKF. At one stage we had 70,000 troops, we slowly brought them down to 50, 40, and then to 30,000. When you are in a narrow bridge head, with the LTTE all around and you getting militarily no assistance from the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE free at that stage, the prime concern for me was the lives of my soldiers.

Every day we withdrew certain amount with ships at Trincomalee and Konkeshanthurai in the northern province of Jaffna. We had planned the de-induction. Each day a battalion would withdraw; over three days that would complete a brigade and that was how it was done.

The last day a ceremonial send-off was given by the Sri Lankan army. Guard of honour was given at Trincomalee. The foreign minister came there, then the three service chiefs of the Sri Lankan armed forces, senior officers of the armed forces and, of course, the media was there to see. While we were pulling back, we had our party standing by on all sides to make sure that someone did not double-cross or conspire against our soldiers. We had even helicopters on board standing by to extricate.

We did not want to leave behind a single item of equipment because it was costly and they were heavy equipment which had to be phased out. We had heavy vehicles, tanks, armoured cars, which was useful. Now, we needed them there, we wanted to keep them till the last, but then to keep them till the last and pulling them out on a ship takes hours. So you had to have a fine balance, take them as late as possible but not too late.

And ultimately, of course, the infantry solider was on his own. For these kind of problem one did make arrangements for some kind of naval guns to support, if we can call. These kind of management, tactical planning was done.

Did any trouble happen during the withdrawal?

No. If anything, we were over careful, and things went off as we planned.

While withdrawing did you not think that you could have brought complete peace, disarmed the LTTE?

There are a couple of things. Disarming the group cannot be an ongoing task. You can disarm a group, there are no arms today. But you cannot guarantee that they will not acquire them in future. So it cannot be a job in perpetuity. It should be time-framed. The military part is disarming, the LTTE was disarmed to that extent, their holding became negligible once we were able to hold elections. But then they continued to get arms. That is why they went to the Sri Lankan government and got arms.

Now, that task cannot be given to the military, to prevent the government from arming them. Because the implications of that are far serious. To prevent that I have to go at the personnel arming them, I cannot go at the Sri Lankan government.

The second part is, what about peace? Can you bring in peace? Let me say this: Application of military force will never bring peace, anywhere in the world. I know I am making a categorical statement, but I stand by that statement. Application of military force can never bring about peace. Peace in the minds of the civil population is the perception in the minds of the common man on his environment, on the kind of governance he has, on his basic needs being met, on his rights being protected.

These are all political matters, not one of them is a military matter. So it is a fallacy if anyone thinks anywhere that by sending it military you bring in peace.

The military can only create a condition for the political actions to take place. It can neither take political action, nor take on the role of the political system.

So did you complete your task? The popular perception is that you did not.

If the IPKF was deemed a political weapon, obviously [it did not]. If it was deemed a military weapon, the task was completed the day election was held and the government could be installed. Thereafter there were no dispensation that the IPKF could give out. We could not give them independence, we could not give them devolution of powers, we could not give financial control to the chief minister, we could not give the provincial government what it took them to be a strong credible government.

I agree that we could not prevent the Sri Lankan government from arming the LTTE. But I could have done it, I had the strength to do it. That would have meant to forcibly preventing the Sri Lankan government from arming the LTTE.

You could have done that?

You know what that means. That means, taking over the country.

Did you think of taking over Sri Lanka any time?

No, no. Because we cannot be involved in it. It was not me, in fact nobody in India could have done that to force the Sri Lankan government not to [arm the LTTE]. Because what do you do with the Sri Lankan government still doing it? What do you do? You go to war.

The humiliation wasn't in Sri Lanka. The humiliation was when we came back to India.

Back to India's Vietnam

  Part 3: The IPKF's military role ended in 1988

Part 4: The most difficult part was managing the withdrawal

Part 5: The humiliation wasn't in Sri Lanka. It was when the IPKF returned

Part 6: Ultimately the Indian soldier was humiliated

Part 7: Till they get Eelam, the LTTE won't stop

Part 8: Shoot Prabhakaran, shoot Mahathiah!

Part 9: Nobody sounded even a Last Post for our dead in Colombo

Part 10: India should have never withdrawn

Part 11: More than ever, Eelam seems a reality now